So you sit down to study French and people keep talking about these crazy verb conjugations: je suis, tu es, il est, nous sommes . . . j’étais, tu étais, il/elle était . . . what is going on? Learning French verbs can be overwhelming and frustrating. But don’t give up just yet!
In French there are 5-6 different verb conjugations for each regular verb in present tense. The same is true for the other tenses as well. AHH! So many verbs to learn, how will I ever do it!
Don’t panic! Even though there are many more verb conjugations than you are used to, you can still learn the verbs without losing your mind. Here are 5 simple ways to keep yourself calm when you are learning French verb tenses
1. Learn the verb tenses in order
First things first, learn the verb tenses in the proper order. If you are just starting to learn French, you really need to learn how to conjugate in the present tense. You need to pay particular attention to the conjugations of être and avoir.
Once you can conjugate verbs in present tense pretty easily, learn the compound tense futur proche. After that, move on to imparfait and passé composé.
Then learn indicatif futur. You’ll be able to learn the remaining verb tenses far more quickly after that.
When you learn the verb tenses in the correct order, you allow your mind the ability to not feel overloaded and focus on the task at hand. Your brain doesn’t need a high cognitive load when learning French or you might just decide to quit. Make it easy on yourself and learn the verbs in the correct order. Please don’t try to learn them all at once!
Make sure you understand the present tense very clearly, and then move on to learn the rest. The rest really do come much more quickly once you’ve figured out how the present tense works.
2. Learn the sounds of the verbs first
Before you EVER read the verbs, try to listen to them first. Listening to verbs first serves two purposes.
(1) If you read the verb first, it can likely mess up your pronunciation. French pronunciation can be tricky with all those consonants that you don’t even pronounce. When you LISTEN to the verb first you create a mental link with the sound of the word so you are better able to remember the verb sound later on. It also helps you remember the sounds of the verb as you use it in spoken sentences.
(2) When you listen to the verbs first, you are more likely to notice the similarities between verbs instead of the differences. (See point #3 below).
With this in mind, don’t forget to listen to the imperative (positive statement), negatif (ne…. pas statement), and interogatif (a question). It is vital for you to hear the verb naturally in all three forms so you can learn how to use the verb in any situation.
3. Focus on what is similar, not what is different.
As you listen to French verbs in the imperative, negatif, and interogatif, you will begin to hear all the similarities. Focus on the verb conjugations that sound the same. You’ll begin to notice that many verb tenses (especially compound tenses) use verb tenses you already know. Listen for those similarities!
4. Look at the spelling of the verbs
Once you have heard the verbs, then you can look at the spellings.
Be aware of the different spellings of the verbs, but don’t be anal about it.
How many times do you have to use spell check for your native language? Yeah, don’t expect yourself to be able to spell words perfectly in another language. People expect a lot of perfection here, but honestly, even native speakers use spell check and have errors occasionally.
Give yourself a break and know the general idea, but don’t focus on it too much or you’ll end up being an excellent speller, but unable to have a conversation.
When you read, you’ll likely be able to figure it out anyway so don’t focus too much on correcting your spelling.
5. Have realistic expectations.
Don’t expect too much of yourself. You can’t expect yourself to know and understand all the verb tenses in French when you have only been learning for 3 months. This will take time! Go step by step from one thing to another and be proud of your progress!
When you look at verb conjugations it can be overwhelming to see all the variety of tenses you “need” to learn. How on earth can you learn all of them? Not sure what I mean, watch the video below:
This is just scrolling down the page for conjugations of “être” on my favorite conjugation website, Reverso. Ouch, so many verb tenses to learn! I’m never going to make it, that’s just so much and . . . and . . .
Ok, before you start pulling your hair out and exploding, let’s take a look at all the conjugations for “to be” in English. Maybe this can help us get a better idea of where our expectations need to be. Watch this video below:
Ok, so we use the present tense, preterite tense, and present continuous tense all the time. Present perfect, past perfect, and future we use pretty commonly as well. However, how often do you really use:
- future perfect (I will have been…)
- past continuous (I was being…)
- future continuous (I will be being . . . )
- present perfect continuous (I have been being. . . )
- past perfect (I had been being . . .)
- the future perfect continuous (I will have been being . .. . )
Chances are you don’t use these a whole ton in your common,everydayy conversations. Sure, you may use them occasionally, and you may use the tense more frequently with verbs other than “to be”, but really, you can hold a conversation just fine with just 6 tenses (present, preterite, present continuous, present perfect, past perfect, and future).
The funny thing is, all those other tenses we talked about are called compound tenses. Meaning, you mix other words to create the tense, it’s not an entirely new “tense” on its own. (was + being) or (have been + being).
French verbs are very similar, there are the few tenses you use all the time (like indicatif present, imparfait, passé composé, futur, and some others). However, they also have a lot of tenses that are not used often, or are used only in writing (like passé simple). As long as you know the root of the verb (the participle), then you can easily recognize what the verb is when reading.
As for the compound tenses. They are easy to learn once you know the basics of present tense and passé composé. You simply combine a few separate conjugations and BOOM, you have a new tense.
So, focus on learning the basics of verb conjugations in French, and THEN move on to other tenses. You really don’t need to learn every. single. verb. tense. Seriously, you don’t. Not unless you want to become a world-renowned French writer, but even that has to come in its own time.
Learning verb tenses is like the story about the tortoise and the hare; Slow and steady wins the race. Just keep going and don’t try to rush to fast. Make sure you have the base verb tenses figured out pretty well before you move on.
You can do this! Remember that!
**DISCLAIMERS: This email may contain links to affiliate content. Please note that I always recommend products that are in your best interest and not mine. Please also know that I am not a native French speaker and my pronunciation is not perfect, however, I can definitely help you improve your pronunciation and get to a point where you can converse with native speakers and they can fine-tune your pronunciation.